Less than 12 miles from the Watergate apartments, documents containing former President Richard Nixon’s grand jury testimony about the scandal that bears the building’s name were released to the public today.
“It’s Nixon being Nixon,” said Stanley Kutler, one of the foremost historians on Nixon and the Watergate scandal. “He whines, he’ self-pitying, he’s assertive, he’s saying ‘I don’t recall, I don’t recollect’ perhaps several thousand times — at least several hundred.”
He even refers to the burglary, which eventually forced him out of office under threat of impeachment, as that “silly, incredible Watergate break-in.”
Nixon testified about his administration’s involvement in the 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters at the Watergate complex 10 months after he resigned from office. It was the first time in history that a former president had given evidence under oath.
The unveiling of that testimony to the public today marks a similarly rare occurrence, as grand jury testimony is almost always kept confidential.
Kutler, along with a team of others, successfully sued for the release of the documents, but, he said, they weren’t expecting anything “earth-shattering.”
“I never had any expectation that this was going to change the story of Nixon or Watergate or all of that,” Kutler said. “No one document is going to do that.”
The more than 700 pages of transcripts, memos and testimony were no disappointment for Kulter either.
“It’s the precedent,” Kutler said. “It’s parting the veil on official secrecy. It’s like I liberated thousands of hours of tape recordings.”
While those thousands of hours of tapes add shading to the already painted picture of Nixon’s character, it is the infamous 18.5 minute gap in the tape recordings of an Oval Office conversation that prosecutors were most interested in when they interviewed the former president under penalty of perjury for two days in 1975.
“I know a lot of people want to find out what happened during the 18.5 minute gap, but he doesn’t say,” said David Paynter, an archivist in the Special Access Division of the National Archives. “He just says that was just one meeting the day he’d come back from a time in Florida. In fact it was 18 minutes out of an entire day, so it’s not something he recalled.”
No matter how many times – and there were many – that prosecutors questioned Nixon about the missing conversation, Nixon’s only response over the 11 hours of questioning was that he was shocked to find out that much time was missing.
“I practically blew my stack,” Nixon said of finding out that nearly 20 minutes of the tape had disappeared.
Thanks to a pardon from his successor Gerald Ford, Nixon could not be prosecuted for any crimes while he was president. He was vulnerable, however, to any perjury committed during his testimony since it took place after he left office.
But at no time during his testimony does Nixon admit to the allegations that he had plotted and planned the Watergate break-in, Paynter said. In fact he complains that the entire premise of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force’s investigation is unfair.
“It probably provides insight into his character. He’s kind of feisty. In places he pushes back hard against prosecutors questions, but it probably doesn’t illuminate his character more than its already been illuminated,” Paynter said.